Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

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87. Bodhidharma and I

  Once Seung Sahn Soen-sa and a student of his attended a talk at a Zen center in California. The Dharma teacher spoke about Bodhidharma. After the talk, someone asked him “What's the difference between Bodhidharma's sitting in Sorim for nine years and your sitting here now?”

The Dharma teacher said, “About five thousand miles.”

The questioner said, “Is that all?”

The Dharma teacher said, “Give or take a few miles.”

Later on, Soen-sa asked his student, “What do you think of these answers?”

“Not bad, not good. But the dog runs after the bone.”

“How would you answer?”

“I'd say, ‘Why do you make a difference?' “

Soen-sa said, “Not bad. Now you ask me.”

“What's the difference between Bodhidharma's sitting in Sorim for nine years and your sitting here now?”

“Don't you know?”

“I'm listening.”

“Bodhidharma sat in Sorim for nine years. I am sitting here now.”

The student smiled.

88. Correspondence with an Ordained American Lawyer

  December 26, 1974

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Thank you for the letter, the instructions, and the poem. This must be a short letter, because I have a great deal of office work to do. I still haven't found the answer to your mouse kong-an.

As for practice, we continue to sit each morning, but that is only Bodhisattva practice—like bowing. The main practice comes during the times when I must deal with people and responsibilities during the day. I try to respond appropriately to each thing that occurs and at the same time to watch carefully for any wish or feeling that something should be different than it is. When such a feeling comes, I swing my ax.

Thank you for your very helpful letters and for all your teaching. I will write again about my homework when I get a chance.


An Hanh

  January 2, 1975

Dear Ven. An Hanh,

Happy New Year! I hope you soon finish your homework, attain enlightenment, and save all people from suffering.

I told you before that a quarter is twenty-five cents. If you understand the true meaning of this, then you will understand the mouse kong-an. For example, somebody comes and asks me for twenty-five cents. I give him a quarter. But he shouts to me, “This is not twenty-five cents; this is a quarter!” I say, “Yah, this is twenty-five cents.” But he doesn't believe me. “No no, this is a quarter, not twenty-five cents!” This goes on for a while. So finally I take out two dimes and a nickel and give them to him. He is very happy. This man only understands twenty-five cents, he doesn't understand what a quarter is. So go back and check the kong-an. You only understand mouse, cat-food, cat-bowl, and broken. You don't understand the meaning behind them. You must find this behind-meaning. The meaning behind the quarter is twenty-five cents; the meaning behind twenty-five cents is the quarter. You are already a great man. Why are you attached to outside words? The apple is red. But the apple is sweet. Don't touch the color; you must taste sweet. Name and form are not necessary. Only eat.

Here is another poem for you:

The moon is white, the snow is white,

  all the ground is white.

The mountain is deep, the night is deep,

  the guest mind is deep.

The owl calls “Too-whoo”; the echo is very cold.

He doesn't know that light from the full moon

  covers the fifteenth day.

I will wait for your homework. Please send me a good answer.

You say that your sitting is not your main practice. This is no good. To think in terms of main practice and not main practice—this is divided mind. What is main practice? An eminent teacher said, “Sitting, lying down, talking, silence, moving—in all these you must become one mind.” This one mind is no mind. No mind is true empty mind. True empty mind is before thinking. Before thinking is only like this. Then where is main practice and not main practice? When sitting, only sit; when talking, only talk; when working, only work. All are your main practice. Sometimes desires appear. This is not good and not bad. Only keep clear mind. You must not touch, you must not swing your ax. An eminent teacher said, “I wander around the six realms and never ask Buddhas or Bodhisattvas for the least bit of help.” Thinking is good. The mind that swings the ax is also thinking. So don't worry. But you must keep everything as your main practice. I hope that you find main practice in all things, that all your actions are one-mind actions and that you save all people.

See you later.

S. S.

  January 7, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Re the mouse kong-an:

I was never born.

I will never die.

Right now I am being born.

Right now I am dying.

0 = ∞

  To say this is correct would be to be attached to name and form. To say it is wrong would be to not know why the cat-bowl is broken. What do you say?


An Hanh

  January 11, 1975

Dear An Hanh,

Thank you for your letter. Your answer to this kong-an is very good, but it is 84,000 miles away from the true answer.

I hit you thirty times!

Is this right or wrong?

I had a dream last night:

        ∞ = 0

Right now I am being born,

right now I am dying.

But I was never born,

I will never die.

No time, no space, no hindrance;

flying in the sky with absolute freedom.

How wonderful it is!

However, the bone of space appears abruptly

and crashes into my skull.

Aaiiieeee!!!……….I wake up.

Moonlight shines through the window onto the floor.


Is this answer enough for you or not? If you say it is enough, then you will find the true meaning of why the cat-bowl is broken. If you say it is not enough, then you are still in this dream. You must wake up! I will give you the key to open this kong-an: The Biok An Lok (Blue Cliff Records) says, “When you see smoke from behind the mountain, you know there is fire. When you see horns above a stone wall, you know there is a cow behind it.”

S. S.

  January 31, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Thank you for your last two letters. I am very glad to hear that you have gotten your permanent residence card and also that you will now be able to make a trip back to Korea.

Thank you also for the invitation to accompany you, but I'm afraid that is not possible this year. There is much work to do in my office and with the College of Oriental Studies and no one else to attend to it if I go traveling. Perhaps next year or the year after I can visit Asia. If so, I hope you will give me some introductions to monks in Korea.

It would be wonderful if you are able to stop in Los Angeles on your way. If so, we would all look forward to seeing you.

My homework is stuck. You have been very kind in giving me directions about the mouse kong-an, but I am still unsure about it. Recently you wrote, “Moonlight shines through the window onto the floor. —Is this answer enough for you or not?” I think you are telling me to live with the “like this” aspect of it and not to chase freedom-mind. Yet before, you sent me poems saying that I should understand that four quarters make a dollar—which I took to mean that I should not cling to any of the various aspects of it—so I don't know. Maybe I am conceptualizing too much. Certainly I feel stuck.

You also wrote that the key to the mouse kong-an was in a statement by the Biok An Lok about the fire in the mountains and the cow behind the wall. You have told me before to see the meaning behind this kong-an, but I am still too stupid to know what you are driving at. The first part (the mouse part) points at 360°. That is plain. The bowl part points behind that? What is behind 360°???? I don't know.

Maybe it is the final throwing away of the idea of the Zen circle or of “like this” or of any special state of mind. So now mostly I just don't know and watch. However, this business requires that I give you an answer to the kong-an, “What is the meaning of ‘the cat-bowl is broken'?” So here is my answer:

It's nothing special.

Finally, the Temple Rules you composed are really good for Americans. I will try to circulate them, because they get right at the business of playing games with other people's heads, which is a major fault of most of us. We all seem to have a lot of mouth-karma, and these will help to halt it.

See you,

An Hanh

  February 12, 1975

Dear An Hanh,

Thank you for your letter. How are you doing lately? I hope you are keeping this “stuck” mind strongly and that you soon get enlightenment.

You and I have the same karma; neither one of us will be able to visit Korea this spring. I must stay because now I am the abbot of Won Gak Sa temple in New York City, and we are beginning the International Zen Center of New York. There are many Korean Buddhists who want me to spend time there, so now I have much work to do between Providence, Boston, and New York.

I like your “stuck” mind very much. Finding a good answer to the mouse kong-an is not as important as keeping this “stuck mind.” Having this mind is your true treasure. But if you only keep it for yourself, then it becomes like any other desire. So you must share this treasure with others to help all people. This is why we use kong-ans and interviews, and why we must get enlightened.

Here is another hint for you.

3 × 3=9

4 + 5=9

10 − 1=9

18 / 2=9

Here are many different examples, but behind each one is the same answer: 9. This kong-an is similar. It is a very good one because all the words—mouse, cat-food, bowl, and broken —all point to the same one thing. You must find this one thing. Before, I gave you many hints, and if you are not attached to my words you will see that they are not different from one another. They all point to this behind-meaning.

Your answer is not good or bad, it is nothing special. But “it is nothing special” has a very special meaning. The meaning behind this is “just like this.”

You said in your letter that the Temple Rules are very good. Thank you very much. I am enclosing some new kongans, which I hope you will find useful.

See you later.

S. S.

  April 7, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

I hear that your Zen centers are springing up on the East Coast like mushrooms after a Spring rain. That is wonderful. I am sure that many people will be helped toward awakening.

About my homework, “the cat-bowl is broken,” there is nothing to say.

I have been looking for ways to talk to Americans about Zen, using language and examples that will seem familiar to them. One way that I have used the Dharma Speeches at the International Buddhist Meditation Center is something like the following: (Please let me know if you approve of this style of talking.)

“In college psychology classes there is an experiment they use to teach you about your perceptions. They take three pails of water: one with hot water, one with ice water, and one with the water at room temperature. The person doing the experiment puts his right hand into the hot water and at the same time puts his left hand into the ice water. He leaves them there thirty seconds or so to get used to the temperature. Then he takes both his hands at the same time and puts them into the third bucket—the one with room temperature water inside. That same water will feel cold to his right hand, which has been in the hot water, and warm to his left hand, which has been in the cold water. Try it. You'll see for yourself.

“What does that tell us about Zen? It shows that such dualistic categories as hot and cold depend on your having a particular viewpoint from which you are observing them. ‘Cold' only means ‘colder than my hand' and ‘hot' only means ‘hotter than my hand.’ Without the reference point, ‘my hand,' words like hot and cold have no meaning at all —they are nonsense.

“The same thing is true of all dualistic categories: hot and cold, light and dark, good and bad, being and non-being, etc.

“So that shows you what you learn by sitting Zen. You learn to relate without any such reference point. The ‘I' gets eliminated as a particular point of view. Without the view-point of an ‘I,' there are no such things as good and bad, being and non-being. All that kind of thinking becomes literally nonsense. Everything is just what it is without any relative qualities added. Red comes and it is red. Pain comes and it hurts. When the sun shines, the room becomes bright. Only like this.

“I only say these things to encourage you to sit Zen. These words have no Zen in them. Understanding is nothing. You must experience for yourself. Work hard and awaken. Then save all sentient beings.”

Maybe this is too much talking, but people seem to like it and it seems to encourage them to sit Zen.

I have not heard from the Providence Zen Center since January. I hope they have not taken my name off their mailing list. I look forward to seeing you on your next trip to the West Coast.

Thank you for your teaching.


An Hanh

  April 17, 1975

Dear An Hanh,

Thank you for your letter and your kind words.

I have been waiting eagerly for the answer to your homework, but you said there is nothing to say. So I am very sad. This kong-an is too easy. All you need to understand is that a quarter is twenty-five cents. Only this.

Thank you very much for showing me how you teach. This teaching style is very good. But it is a little bit unclear. You say that relative qualities are nonsense and that everything is just what it is without any relative qualities added. But red, too, is relative. Pain is relative. Sun, shines, bright —all these are relative. You say that relative qualities are all nonsense. So why do you use them here? And if the “I” is eliminated as a particular point of view, how does red come? Who sees red? Who feels pain? Who understands “like this”?

There are three areas: the relative area, the nonsense area, and the “like this” area. In your teaching, from the relative area to the nonsense area is clear. But from nonsense to “like this” is not clear. People may have some difficulty understanding this.

An eminent teacher said, “To cure the sickness of deluded views, we must give people mirage medicine. When the sickness is cured, then we must take away the mirage medicine.” How do we take away this mirage medicine? This is very important. If we don't take away the medicine, then the patient will fall down into the mirage.

In your teaching, you are trying to cure the sickness of attachment to opposites, and you use nonsense medicine. But how do you take away this nonsense medicine? Where does this nonsense go? So the area from nonsense to “like this” is not clear.

Here is an example of correct teaching: Cold and hot are made by thinking. If you cut off thinking, all opposites disappear. This is the Absolute. So there is no good and no bad, no dark and no light, no cold and no hot. But before thinking, there are no words and no speech. If you open your mouth, you are wrong. So to say “no cold and no hot” is also wrong. There is only KATZ, only HIT. But this itself is being attached to emptiness. So in true emptiness before thinking, you only keep a clear mind. All things are just as they are. It is like a clear mirror. Red comes and the mirror is red; white comes and the mirror is white. Cold comes: only cold; hot comes: only hot.

I hope this example is helpful. You must check where the medicine comes and where it is taken away.

I am also sending you a copy of the Dharma Speech that I will give at the opening ceremony of the International Zen Center of New York. How are your teaching and my teaching different? If you check this, then the Dharma Speech will teach you. It is very necessary first to cure the mind that separates the world into opposites. But when people understand “like this,” that is also thinking, attachment to “like this.” The Dharma Speech is really over when I say, “One two three four; five six seven eight.” All the rest is explanation. But explanation is necessary. Then I once more check people's minds with a question about same or different. The final sentence means throwing everything away: same or different, explanations, “like this,” Dharma Speeches, everything.

I am sorry about the newsletters. I will speak to the Providence Director and have him bring you up to date.

I hope I will see you soon.

Sincerely yours,



89. Saving All People

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “When you say you are here to save all people, does that mean only to help them get enlightened or also to save them from hunger, war, and pain?”

Soen-sa said, “I have already finished saving all people.”

There was a long silence.

“Do you understand what this means?”

Another long silence.

“Put it down. Okay?”

90. Dialogue at Tal Mah Sah

  One Sunday, after a Dharma talk at Tal Mah Sah Temple in Los Angeles, Layman Bon Won came up to Seung Sahn Soen-sa and asked, “What is the realm of enlightenment?”

Soen-sa said, “Don't you know?”

Bon Won hit the floor.

Soen-sa said, “I don't believe you. Give me another answer.”

“Outside it's very hot today.”

Soen-sa said, “Good. Now let me ask you a question. Long ago, when Zen Master Se Sahn attained enlightenment, he wrote this stanza:

When hair is white, mind is not white.

Men have said this for a long time.

Listen! a wooden chicken is crowing!

Hear it and finish a great man's work.

  What do these last two lines mean?”

“I ate lunch, so I'm not hungry now.”

“I don't care about your lunch. Only you know whether your belly is full. I'm asking you about the wooden chicken crowing. What does that mean?”


“Are you a wooden chicken?”

“Why are you playing a flute with no holes?”

Soen-sa said, “Even if you killed all the Buddhas, I wouldn't believe you. The meaning of ‘a great man's work' is already in the poem. Which line contains this meaning?”

“There's a lot of smog in the Los Angeles sky.”

“No good. Read the poem again.” Bon Won read the poem and said, “Have you had lunch?”

“No good. The meaning is in the poem. Read it again.”

Bon Won read the poem once again and was silent.

Soen-sa said, “You still don't know. Now you ask me.”

“What does it mean to finish a great man's work?”

Soen-sa said, “When hair is white, mind is not white.”

At this, Bon Won laughed loudly, and Soen-sa joined him.

91. The Boat Monk

  Long ago, in China, the great Zen Master Yak Sahn had two chief disciples—Un Am and Dok Song. Both of them received Transmission from him and became Zen Masters themselves. Un Am was a powerfully-built, tireless man, with a voice like a great bronze bell and a laugh that made the ground shake. He soon became very famous as a teacher; many hundreds of disciples came to study with him. Dok Song, on the other hand, was a small, thin man, whose nature was so reserved that people rarely took notice of him. Only now and then he would say or do something that echoed in their minds for days afterwards.

When Master Yak Sahn died, Dok Song went to Un Am and said, “You are now a great Zen Master. You have many students, many temples. I approve of this. But my way is different. It leads to mountains, rivers, and clouds. After I have gone, please find one good student and send him to me, so that I can pay my debt to our Master.”

With these words, Dok Song left for the province of Hwa Jong. There, he put aside his monk's clothing, let his hair grow, and bought a small boat, in which he would row people from one bank of the river to the other. So Dok Song lived the life of a simple ferryman, in perfect obscurity and freedom.

Many years passed. In the nearby province of Hon Am, there lived a young man named Son Hae. He had become a monk at the age of nine and had studied the sutras diligently since then, learning from all the foremost scholars in the area and mastering many volumes of Mahayana texts. Eventually, he acquired a reputation as one of the greatest Dharma teachers in the country, and people from all over came to hear his lectures and stay at his temple.

One day, after a particularly fine lecture, someone asked him, “Master, please explain to me—what is the Dharma body?”

“The Dharma body doesn't exist,” said Son Hae.

The questioner continued, “And what is the Dharma eye?”

“The Dharma eye is without flaw.”

Suddenly, from the back of the lecture hall, there was a burst of laughter, so powerful that it made the ground shake. Son Hae paused for a few moments in the shocked silence that followed, then descended from the podium and walked down the aisle to the back of the hall. He stopped in front of the old monk who had laughed, bowed once, and said, “Forgive me, Venerable Sir, but where is my mistake?”

The monk smiled, in deep appreciation of Son Hae's humility. “Your teaching is not incorrect,” he said, “but you haven't even glimpsed the ultimate Dharma. What you need is the instruction of a keen-eyed Master.”

“Won't you be kind enough to teach me?” Son Hae said.

“I'm sorry, but that's out of the question. Why don't you go to Hwa Jong province? There's a certain boatman there who will show you the way.”

“A boatman? What kind of boatman can he be?”

“Above him,” said the old monk, “there is no place for a roof; below him, there is no place for a pin. He may look like an ordinary boatman, but go speak to him. You'll see.”

So Son Hae dismissed his many students, put aside his monk's clothing, and traveled to Hwa Jong.

After several days, Son Hae found the boatman. He turned out to be a skinny old man, shabbily dressed, who indeed looked like any other boatman and merely nodded as Son Hae stepped into the ferry. He rowed a few strokes, then let the boat drift and said, “Venerable Sir, what temple are you staying at?”

Son Hae recognized this innocent question as a challenge. He sat up, at attention, and said, “What is like it doesn't stay; what stays isn't like it.”

“Then what can it be?” said Dok Song.

“Not what is before your eyes.”

“Where did you learn this?”

“The eye can't see; the ear can't hear.”

Up to this point, Son Hae had put up a decent fight. But the Master understood his mind perfectly, and when he suddenly shouted “KATZ!!!”, Son Hae could find nothing to say. A few moments passed. Then the Master said, “Even the truest statement is a stake in the ground, which a donkey can be tethered to for ten thousand aeons.”

Son Hae was by now thoroughly at a loss. His face turned white. He could hardly breathe.

Again the Master spoke. “I have let down a thousand feet of fishing line; the fish is just beyond the hook. Why don't you say something?”

Son Hae opened his mouth, but no words came out. Just then, the Master swung round his oar and hit him full on, with such force that he was hurled into the river. He fell down through the water, and when he came up, sputtering and gasping, he grabbed on to the side of the boat. As he was pulling himself up, the Master shouted, “Tell me! Tell me!” and knocked him back into the river. But this time, as soon as Son Hae felt the sharp sting of the oar, his mind exploded, and he understood everything.

When he surfaced, he trod water and nodded three times. The Master beamed with pleasure, and, extending his oar, pulled him back into the boat. For a few minutes they sat looking at each other. Then the Master said, “You can play with the silken line at the end of the rod, but as long as you don't disturb the clear water, you will be doing well.”

Son Hae said, “What are you trying to accomplish by letting down the fishing line?”

The Master said, “A hungry fish swallows bait and hook together. If you think in terms of existence or non-existence, you will be caught and cooked for dinner.”

Son Hae laughed and said, “I don't understand a word you're saying. I can see your tongue flapping, but where is the sound?”

“I have been fishing in this river for many years,” the Master said, “and only today have I caught a golden fish.”

Son Hae clapped his hands over his ears.

“That's right. Just like this—how wonderful!” said the Master. “Now you are a free man. Wherever you go, you must leave no traces. In all the years that I spent studying with Master Yak Sahn, I learned nothing but that. Now you understand, and I have paid my debt.”

All day and all night the two men drifted on the river, talking and not talking. When dawn came, they rowed to shore, and Son Hae stepped out of the boat. “Good-bye,” said the Master. “You needn't think of me again. Everything else is unnecessary.”

Son Hae walked away. After a while, he turned around for one last look. The Master waved at him from the middle of the river, then rocked back and forth until the boat capsized. Son Hae watched for the Master's head to surface, but it never did. He could only see the overturned boat slowly floating downstream and out of sight.

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